Not really. This is just a simple link … to an interview with 4 MONTHS director Cristian Mungiu that took up a whole hour on NPR’s Fresh Air, and I’ve already listened through it twice.¹
Mungiu talks about a score of interesting topics, besides 4 MONTHS specifically and the artistic choices he made (like never mentioning Communism per se). He talked for a long time about the system of funding movies in Romania, which is still state-run to a significant extent. As he also notes though, domestic private funding is basically nil since the Romanian box office has collapsed to 1/10 of what it had been because the country has so few theaters now. A thriving artistic culture, which includes a domestic movie industry, is part of the national common good and thus a legitimate thing for the state to support if private means do not. Mungiu tells of how he had to take 4 MONTHS on something like an old-style traveling road show, from town to town and village to village, for his film to be seen in much of Romania (a film about that will be an extra on the DVD, he promises).
He also notes that he was born in 1968, two years after abortion was made illegal, and part of the “Baby Boom” that took place in Romania in the first several years of abortion’s illegality. He says matter-of-factly that he was “not a planned child,” and this was something many Romanians of his generational cohort knew since this was something “our parents wouldn’t hide from us.” But most importantly, he says, “it’s not that our parents wouldn’t love us or that my parents wouldn’t love me.” Exactly. The very notion that Parenthood is a thing Planned is a lie or a rationalization. And every unplanned child was once an unplanned pregnancy.
I’m curious also about something Mungiu said at about the 3:20 mark. He’s giving the history of illegal abortion in Romania and noting that it had nothing to do with moral or religious reasons, especially since religion was discouraged under Communism. And then Mungiu says, with the emphasis that this is important, that in Romania “we are Orthodox, we are not Catholic.” Well, I at least knew that much. But its relevance went over my head. I had been pretty confident that the Orthodox Church condemns abortion too (less so, contraception; also outlawed by Ceausescu). So … what, if anything definitive,² does Orthodoxy teach about abortion and contraception? Peter? Rod?
¹ Don’t let the title “Oppression and Abortion” turn you off. That’s the National Pinko Radio headline-writers. Plus there’s no denying by sane people that the Ceausescu regime was (a) oppressive and (b) did not outlaw abortion for good reason.
² I understand very generally that differences in church structures could make this question, or any similar one, a bit more complicated for the East than the West.
Actually, this isn’t really a “fisk,” more like my saying “Mr. Speaker, permission to revise and extend my remarks” about 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, beyond what I said back in September when I first saw it.
unlike in VERA DRAKE, nobody says abortion is wrong
That isn’t quite true. There is a conversation Otilia has with her boyfriend where she asks what he would do if she were in Gabita’s position. He says, not to her joy, that he would marry her because he’s against abortion because it’s so dangerous. Which doesn’t actually count as “wrong” in my opinion¹ … but it is one reason to be against abortion.
There’s even a hint, only a hint, in Marinca’s performance in this scene, that her question might actually not be hypothetical. And earlier in the movie, Otilia mentions in passing getting notes to lie about her period. (This is one example of 4 MONTHS being so utterly “lived-in” and thus so endlessly rich with details that may or may not mean anything flying off like pinwheels. Another — the abortionist leaves behind his ID at the hotel desk; was it fake?)
Abortion as either a moral matter or a political issue simply does not appear, on either side.
This is mostly correct. Politics certainly never enters the picture (except to the extent that short conversations about the consequences of getting caught reflect decades-ago political actions; which is a stretch), and morality isn’t an explicitly textual matter, for the reasons I there stated.
But it is now inconceivable to me that this movie could have been made by people who didn’t have deep qualms about abortion and the film reflects that, however far the makers may wish to take it — whether they connect the lines, or dot the i’s and cross the t’s (or whatever metaphor appeals to you). It’s not just The Shot, which seemed on second viewing last week to go on for twice as long as it had in my memory, but also the shooting of the subsequent disposal scenes, which use tropes frequently seen in horror movies — dark of night, dog on the soundtrack, running into the middle of a composition where the perspective seems to stretch into infinity.
It’s also the ending, as I wrote in the post below (and which David Edelstein rebelled against; an infallible sign that one is doing something right on this topic). It’s also how the abortion is depicted as a violation itself — Gabita says while lying down “it hurt when he put it in me,” and it’s not obvious whether she’s talking about Bebe’s catheter or his penis (though there be subtitling/translation issues). And director Cristian Mungiu has said repeatedly in interviews that under Ceausescu, “abortion lost any moral connotation and was rather perceived as an act of rebellion and resistance against the regime.” In another, he said at Cannes that he wanted people to consider deeply “the moral issue” of abortion rather than about “getting caught.” All of which presupposes that there is a moral issue in the first place.²
In a discussion at the Arts & Faith discussion board, Steve Greydanus asked a question about the ending of 4 WEEKS, 3 MONTHS AND 2 DAYS (SPOILER warning), and a good one that speaks to part of what the film says and shows about abortion:
Is it Gabita or Otilia who comments in the final scene that “we must never speak about this again”? I remember it as Gabita but I’m not sure. Also, I don’t have the exact wording in my notes — anyone have it? Thanks.
Actually, that final line was spoken by Otilia, the women who arranges the abortion for her friend Gabita and whom the movie mostly follows. And the context is particularly damning. Here is the last exchange from my notes, which obviously are fallible in small details but not the ones I’ll emphasize. The pair are sitting down at a restaurant.
Gabita: Did you bury it?
Otilia: You know what we’re going to do. We’re never going to talk about this. OK?
Then a lengthy, lengthy pause and no words are exchanged between the women, until the film suddenly cuts to black. They are served their dinner. Steve describes it thus in his excellent review:
4 Months comes closest to commentary in the final scene, which finds one of the main characters sitting down to a meal in the restaurant of the hotel where the abortion was performed. A wedding reception is in full swing in the next room, but a fight has broken out in the party. The waiter brings a dish from the reception menu: beef, liver, kidneys, breaded brains. What happens when human beings treat one another as no more than this? 4 Months offers queasy but meaty food for thought.
Look at all the signifiers here: a wedding, the icon of sex, gone wrong; body parts served, as if in response to the “never speak of this again” answer; a lengthy shot of silence, as if absorbing the unspeakable. And then there’s that last question, what prompted that answer. The women had been told, quite pragmatically, by the abortionist not to flush the baby down the toilet (it’ll stop up the plumbing and prompt an investigation) and not to bury it (dogs will dig it up for food), but to toss it down a high-rise garbage chute (untraceable and probably never to be noticed). Otilia considered both these alternatives while carrying the towel-wrapped corpse; she even gets the attention of some dogs who can smell the blood in her bag. She did what the abortionist told her. But Gabita asks her “did you bury it?” The answer is unspeakable … and so, we’re never going to talk about this. OK?
This trailer for 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, which opened Friday in New York and expands at least to Washington this Friday is really one of the most expert ones I have seen in a long time. (I saw it at THE SAVAGES last weekend.)
It’s incredibly effective at selling the movie, without simply aping the movie (in fact, stylistically, it’s nothing like Mungiu’s film). The short shots, the sharp cuts, the sudden blackouts, the flash edits, the constant motion of both the camera and the things within the frame (amped up by the shortness of the shots) and the “zzzzmmmmppppp” sound effect really wind you up for a tension-filled thriller — what the film is, in many respects. But the trailer does this in the only way you can in 2 minutes. And then there’s hose musical thumps on the soundtrack that you realize eventually become … the sound of a heartbeat.
I’ll try to have something to say in the next few days about some of the reviews I’ve read. But in the meantime, here’s what I wrote back in September about 4 MONTHS, which I thoroughly recommend and would be perfectly happy to see atop my 10 Best list this time next year. (I see that Peter Chattaway and Steve Greydanus agree with me, so this isn’t a case of “Victor’s iconoclastic tastes setting him apart from other Christians.” Can there be a better recommendation for an abortion movie than that the Academy snubbed it for Best Foreign Film?)
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 9
Mike generally has a generally good sense of my tastes, so I’m curious why he was unsure whether I would like this film, given that he (accurately) predicted that moral/religious reasons would not be a problem. When Ryan and I began discussing 4 MONTHS sitting in the theater during the credits, at almost the same point, we said “Dardennes,” i.e., one of my 2 or 3 favorite current filmmakers. This film is the answer to that eternal riddle “what if the Dardenne Brothers had been born in Bucharest?”: the style and general interest is exactly the same — all-natural light, down-at-the-heels urban milieu, characters at the economic margins but not exactly poor, no music but a very precise sound mix, constantly roving camera, short period of time, tightly focused plotting, a narrow life-defining quest pursued with dogged DOGGED persistence in the midst of a variety of other tasks, naturalistic performances. The major difference is that Dardennes deal in moral dilemmas and their consequences; in 4 MONTHS, there really aren’t any. Mungiu made a film much more about the most-hectic shit day of your life, trying to juggle 100 tasks, remembering what lies you told, and get around others in your way (in that sense, not unlike THE CHILD).
Surprisingly, the central Rosetta-like protagonist is not Gabita, the woman seeking an illegal abortion, but her college roommate Otilia (Anamaria Lucia, a great performance). Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is a real airhead, and not in a funny way; indeed her stupid lies and avoidances set up potential fatal situations. And so it’s believable that her friend would simply “help” a la Vera Drake, seeing herself as a protector of a friend in over her head. All the while, trying to deal with her own boyfriend issues and trying to get by in Ceaucescu-era Romania where cigarettes serve as a kind of second currency, scarce commodities are traded as needed, and the black market for all goods, not just abortion, is considered a part of life. Scene after scene plays with perfect attention to detail and balance. Especially fine is a scene of a birthday party where everybody is engaging in fairly-interesting party talk while the camera keeps a tight frame for several minutes on two people privately miles away. Indeed, life in actually-existing-socialist Romania is portrayed as nothing but lies, where lying about things large and small, hiding things, maintaining appearances, getting around others is ubiquitous. Everybody does it. And everybody knows everybody else does it, making social life one long cynical day of pragmatic getting-by. The short performance by the abortionist himself (Vlad Ivanov) should be on Wikipedia as the illustration of “Pragmatism,” subfield “ruthless.” And anyone who thinks THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU had unbelievably insensitive hospital personnel is invited to look at the hotel workers here.
As for the portrayal of abortion. Yes, this movie is in a very broad sense *about* the quest for an illegal abortion. Abortion as either a moral matter or a political issue simply does not appear, on either side. The decision to abort was made before the movie begins, and the abortion and disposing of the dead baby are simply tasks in a laundry list and, unlike in VERA DRAKE, nobody says abortion is wrong. But there is a shot of the result of the abortion that doesn’t last long but is as in-you-face and bloody as any pro-life group poster (this being the 5th month, it’s an undeniably human form and it’s far more explicit than the original ALFIE. Squeamish: Consider this your warning.) On balance, I would put it this way: 4 MONTHS is a movie where nobody says word of pro-choice propaganda and which shows an aborted corpse dead on the floor. That’s a net plus. Indeed, I wonder how this film would have played had it not come with the reputation and handy tag “Romanian abortion movie.” The A-word, like with the central plot points in THE SON, LA PROMESSE and THE CHILD, is not even mentioned until quite a way into the movie, though there is much indirect (not the same as euphemistic) talk about what had already been arranged offscreen. Would the first 20-30 minutes have played differently, as more mysterious, with the shocking A-word clicking together what much of the talk’s been about? The world will never know.
HAPPINESS, Hur Jin-ho, South Korea, 5
The kind of moderately entertaining festival fare that tends to evaporate in your head fairly quickly amid all the great stuff (and crap) surrounding it. Starts like the Feel-Good Movie from Hell though, as a high-living South Korean secretly flees the big city and the alcohol that has given him cirrhosis in his 30s. He heads for a kind of health farm, filled with wacky characters, including The Girl Who Will Save Him but has has own fatal disease (lung cancer). But it takes some surprising turns in its second half and is much tougher on the central character and more serious than it starts out as. Still, to be perfectly frank, it’s four days later and nothing particular or singular, for good or ill, about it has stuck in my head (hence the grade change from 6 to 5). Except that HAPPINESS maintains current South Korean cinema’s near-perfect record of having in every film one scene or one action or gesture of shockingly (to this and most other Westerners) unmotivated or excessive-for-the-motive brutalism, even in a movie that you wouldn’t call violent.
ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE, Shekhar Kapur, Britain, 2
Begins with a lie — an internally-secure Queen Elizabeth saying in 1585 that Catholics will not be punished in her England for their beliefs, but only for their actions (every British Catholic grows up knowing what a “priest hole” is). And it ends with a lie — a title card saying that with victory over the Spanish Armada, “England entered a time of peace and prosperity” (no, it became victorious in its external wars and there were great cultural and exploratory achievements; but anti-Catholic persecution became much more vigorous and culminated in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot against Elizabeth’s successor; the English Civil War came within 50 years of Elizabeth’s death). And in between — there isn’t much: bombastic style with pompous score, portentous camera angles and sinister shadows that pound everything into the ground. Cate Blanchett is playing a middle-aged Elizabeth, so she doesn’t have the girlish charm that made her performance in the original so winning. Worst of all, the film frankly traffics in some quite ugly anti-Catholic imagery. And to be clear, I’m talking director’s choices — things like having crucifixes and rosary beads sinking slowly down to the bottom of the sea to triumphal music. No sane man denies the obvious facts of history: Spain WAS a Catholic power and the Church DID try to overthrown Elizabeth and used English Catholics in its efforts. I quite liked the first ELIZABETH film, and, like most British Catholics, I really do have pretty thick skin about British history, thicker than a lot of St. Blogs’s Americans. But this pissed off even me.
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, Werner Herzog, USA, 6
ENCOUNTERS doesn’t have a central protagonist as compelling as GRIZZLY MAN’s Timothy Treadwell. Nor does it really have much of a unifying idea or structure — it would be very easy to dismiss ENCOUNTERS as a T-shirt saying “Werner went to Antarctica and all we got with this lousy [sic] home movie.” And Herzog for the first time (to me, anyway) shows a side to his persona that can fairly be called ugly. He steps on people’s self-descriptions as “ridiculous” or “I’ll make a long story short,” which comes across as especially mean from Werner Herzog, since no human being walking the face of the Earth has made a better life from being or from chronicling the sort of “touched” eccentrics whose lives are “efforts to jump off the world” and so collect at its Antarctic bottom? But with those limitations stipulated, and the 6-grade noted, this remains a very entertaining and often amazing piece of Discovery Channel programming (though it’s more of an anti-doc than a doc). And in fairness, Herzog does hold back at certain moments — the Russian who doesn’t want to discuss his past, say. And his “Stuttering John/’Man Show’ Boy”-schtick of asking inane or bizarre questions that prompt “keeping up appearances” answers (“is this a great moment?” say) is never not funny. And the imagery Herzog gets of the world under the ice is simply unbelievable — and even 75 inches of the best plasma won’t do it justice: jellyfish with visible hairs on their tentacles; droplets of water (though who knows what size they are) on the underside of the ice sheet, converging like droplets of ink on the table; swimming through fields of small marine life that cloud and blotch the visual field like the pulp in a glass of orange juice. And Herzog can still get the image too bizarre to be believed — the “piece of luggage act,” the blonding-snowstorm training both look like games that “It’s A Knockout” would have envied. And there ARE penguins in this movie. But this being a Herzog mnovie, it is not a spoiler to note that they are deranged.
Hopefully, there won’t be a big stink in conservative circles over the fact that 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS — a movie about a quest for an illegal abortion in Ceaucescu-era Romania — won the top prize at the world’s most prestigious and important film festival.
I fear the worst though, if there’s much knee-jerking or the word about this film gets out the wrong way. Especially given the headlines from the US press — CNN: “Cannes’ top prize goes to film about abortion” (complete with a picture of Jane Fonda granting the top prize and kissing the director; how many buttons could they push if trying); ABC/Associated Press: “Romanian Abortion Film Wins Cannes Prize”; Drudge (from Agence France-Presse): “Top Cannes award for harrowing Romanian abortion film.”
The film has been noted in the Catholic blogosphere — at American Papist, Catholic Fire and Creative Minority Report — and the common ground is sight-unseen suspicion without very good or even much-stated reasons, even of the kind that are justified sight-unseen. I certainly understand the suspicion to a degree, but VERA DRAKE a “rather mediocre” movie? I didn’t think so. Peter Chattaway didn’t. Jeffrey Overstreet didn’t. I asked Mike D’Angelo, who saw 4 MONTHS at Cannes, how he’d guess I’d react to the “abortion film.” Though Mike is, in his words, “a fairly devout atheist,” he knows my tastes and dispositions (including my religious beliefs) fairly well. This was his answer, cited with permission:
I can’t say, but if you don’t like it I doubt it’ll be for political/moral reasons. It’s an “abortion film” the way SAFE is an “environmental illness” film.
So I remain very optimistic that 4 MONTHS will be a good film in itself though, and it’s not simply because I had VERA DRAKE in my Top 5. I really liked THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU, the last “harrowing” Romanian movie to come garlanded with Cannes prizes, and also dug 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST when I saw it last year.
There is neutral-to-favorable comment at Lifesite; (some AFP versions of the story even labeled the Cannes prize-winners as “death-obsessed”); nobody from Cannes that I’m aware of was calling 4 MONTHS a great blow for women’s freedom or against the fascist godbag patriarchy or any of the rest of that. And the comments from the director Cristian Mungiu in this Australian ABC article are somewhat encouraging, given the audience and the fact that he was speaking in a language not his own:
Because of the pressure of the regime, women and families were so much concerned about not being caught for making an illegal abortion that they didn’t give one minute of thought about the moral issue … [putting the baby onscreen] makes a point — people should be aware of the consequences of their decisions.
OK, not Father Pavone, but certainly no reason to be suspicious of his movie, which is for most, still sight-unseen. Given the reports the Cannes lineup was unusually strong this year, I am psyched.